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BE WARNED: THIS POST DOES HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE THINGS I USUALLY WRITE ABOUT – Its only that I did not want to open a fourth blog for just one post. 

CDV Photograph with an interesting history.

Every now and then I buy collections of photographs. I am especially after early (pre 1900) images of prussian soldiers and veterans wearing interesting medals and medal bars. A couple of days ago I received another small collection and as soon as I unpacked them my eyes fell on a guy looking very much like an english soldier.  The good thing about the photo is that the photographer did not only note the plate number on the backside but also the soldiers name, regiment and a date.

We are looking at Clayton S. Willicombe of the 3rd West Riding of Yorkshire Rifle Volunteer Corps on the 25th of June 1869.

Clayton Stanford Willicombe – 25th of June 1869

A quick search brought up some information on his military career

Edinburgh Gazette March 1869

London Gazette 1873

Some hours of online research led me to the this article (*) found in the newsletter of the Royal Tunbridge Wells Civic Society. 

Woodbury Park Cemetery is just minutes from the busy St John’s Road, the main route into Tunbridge Wells from the north; but on a sunny day it’s a lovely place for a quiet walk. The Victorian statuary and the contrasting greens of the dark conifers and the not over-manicured grass have a calming effect. One can imagine the staid, respectable lives of the worthy people buried here: Canon Hoare, vicar of Holy Trinity; Henry Thomas Austen, brother of Jane; and Jacob Bell, founder of the Pharmaceutical Society. So the inscription on top of the Willicombe family tomb is all the more bizarre.

It is to Clayton Stanford Willicombe, “who was shot on Sunday 14th October 1883 at Glendive Montana USA while aiding the Sheriff in the execution of his duty”. It’s a clear, straightforward enough statement, but somehow, in the middle of Victorian Tunbridge Wells, it cries out for further explanation. Just who was Clayton Stanford Willicombe and what on earth was he doing in Montana?

Photos of the Willicombe family tomb on Woodbury Park Cemetary, Tunbridge Wells. Kindly taken by my “foreign correspondent” and history loving friend Mr. Nick Britten of Rochester, Kent (twitter : @Nick_Britten)

Montana – it’s a long way away even now. Up there in the top left-hand corner of the United States, beyond Wyoming and the Dakotas, nestling up against the Canadian border; in 1883 it hadn’t yet been recognised as a state. Until the 1860’s it was visited mainly by fur-trappers and traders. Then gold was discovered, and silver and lead and copper; and a great mining and metal-working industry developed in the far west of the Territory.

The eastern part, however, where Glendive lies, remained undeveloped; though fought over in those last, sad years of the Indian Wars. The Little Big Horn, where Custer died in 1876, is less than 200 miles away. In June each year small paddle steamers would make their way up the Yellowstone river bringing in supplies and settlers, and taking away furs and buffalo ‘robes’. All that changed in 1881 with the arrival of the Northern Pacific Rail Road, bringing reliable year-round transportation and opening up the land to economic exploitation.

One of the first to take advantage was Pierre Wibaux, son of a wealthy textile manufacturer in Roubaix, northern France. He arrived in 1883, and within 12 years had built up one of the biggest ranching operations in the state, running some 65,000 cattle. And this, presumably, was the sort of thing that 34 year-old Willicombe had in mind when he arrived in 1883.

Ravensdale Victorian villa and gate lodge built in the 1800s for William Willicombe

William and his wife, Maria, had at least twelve children. Clayton was one of the youngest. The educational opportunities available to the children widened as William became more successful. The elder boys had been apprenticed in the building trade within Tunbridge Wells, whereas Clayton, at age 11, and his brother, Gordon Burton, aged 13, were sent as boarders to a school in Regents Park (which seems to have occupied one of the fine houses designed there by Decimus Burton). We don’t know what Clayton did for the next ten years, but in 1871 (aged 22) he was a stuff merchant (ie a merchant of woollen cloth) living in Bradford. This could be a significant pointer to his later plans, as he went to Montana, not to ranch cattle, but to raise sheep. This is not as unusual as it might sound – one of the most successful ranchers in Glendive, Charles Krug, made his money from sheep, having switched from cattle after the disastrous winter of 1886-7.

And again, although we don’t know the full story, it seems that Clayton had some experience of sheep-raising. In 1875 we think he was on a sheep station in Australia, having borrowed one thousand pounds from his father. Certainly when his father died in 1875, he is the only one among seven surviving sons and three sons-in-law who was not present at the funeral. In 1881 Clayton was staying with his brother Henry in 9 Calverley Place, in what had been the main family home when he was a child. He is described as living on ‘income from houses’. He could have inherited these from his father, who left the income from various houses in Calverley Park Gardens to his wife and children. In Clayton’s case we think that this included a house called ‘Newlyn’, which today is known as 30 Lansdowne Road.

The Graecian Monarch

In July 1883 Clayton and his nephew Mortimer Mansfield (then aged 20 and son of his sister Augusta Maria) arrived in Glendive via Chicago. They had sailed from London on the ship ‘Grecian Monarch’, arriving in New York on 26th June. The Glendive Times of July 14th records that they bought a ranch about six miles south-west of the town, and that they were “very pleasant and accomplished gentlemen [with] unlimited capital to further any enterprise they may project”. Two weeks later they bought a second ranch, making them “possessed of two of the finest ranches in the Yellowstone Valley, and no better can be found in Uncle Sam’s great domain.”

Things started well – they built an ‘almost palatial cottage’ on the ranch, and in September were complimented on the quality and abundance of the potatoes, rutabagas and water-melons produced there. They also registered a brand for their cattle and horses, though the intention was always to raise sheep. But suddenly it all went wrong.

Glendive Main Street in 1881

On the evening of Sunday 14th October, Clayton was in the offices of Pontet & Gallagher in the town. Pontet & Gallagher were mainly liquor merchants, but were also land agents and fulfilled certain administrative functions for the county.

That afternoon three Texan cowboys employed by Scott & Hanks Cattle Co. came into town. They came by train from Keith, thirty miles to the east (the town of Keith is now called Wibaux). They started drinking and making a nuisance of themselves. One of them began shooting at a sign. Sheriff Taylor, who had been playing stud poker in the Star saloon, went out to tell him to be quiet, but another of the cowboys followed him from the saloon and the two cowboys overpowered the sheriff, hitting him with the butt of a revolver. No attempt was made to arrest them, and in fact all three returned to the Star saloon, where the cowboys bought drinks for the crowd, including the sheriff. Apparently the under-sheriff and the night constable were also in the bar, enjoying the hospitality.

This situation continued for perhaps a further hour and a half. Although the officials made no attempt to arrest the cowboys, others amongst the townsfolk, including Clayton, seem to have formed a posse. The command ‘Hold up your hands’ was given. At this the cowboys, with two or three associates, retreated towards the freight depot, the posse firing upon them as they went. The cowboys crawled under a freight car and waited, their six-shooters ready. They were heard to say that they would not be taken alive.

Having fired some twenty-five to fifty shots towards the cowboys the posse split up and made its way towards the depot in ones and twos. Clayton was in the lead. With two others in support he made his way towards the freight car itself. Placing his hand upon the side of the car he peered beneath. Three shots rang out almost simultaneously, the bullets passing through his chest and neck, no more than an inch and a half apart. He died instantly. At this his companions retreated, each man seeking shelter for himself. In the meantime the cowboys escaped.

Record of the inques

At daybreak on Monday the search for the murderers began. One of them, Homer (or Larry) Wolverton, was caught very early – at the railroad while attempting to catch the 6:10 west-bound train. Conductor Brown of the Northern Pacific was also arrested. He had allowed the cowboys to travel free from Keith the previous afternoon, and had accompanied them for most of that evening. An inquest on Clayton was held that afternoon, and concluded that he had been killed ‘feloniously and with malice aforethought’ by the three men. Posters were put up in public places offering a reward of $1000 for the arrest of the two escaped cowboys, named as Dave Coward and Horace Risley. It was reported that the ‘citizens are very much excited, and strongly in favour of lynching the men under arrest’.

“Died with boots and spurs on” -Larry Wolverton, the man who shot Clayton

Two posses were sent to Keith, one by train and one on horseback, but they returned without success. Then, during the afternoon two local men hunting for a lost horse came across the cowboys, in the direction of Clayton’s ranch. A posse was made up which found the cowboys asleep and brought them in. On Wednesday, October 17th, the three cowboys were taken by train to the Custer county jail in Miles City for their better protection. On October 22nd a further warrant was issued for the arrest of James Lynch, a bartender who had been engaged by the cowboys to cook for them, and who had been with them at the freight depot.

On Saturday the Glendive Times reported Clayton’s funeral. It said “Glendive has lost a friend, the county a citizen, and people a patron who can never be replaced … He was a young man just merging into the prime of life … a noble man and friend to the lowest as well as the highest in the paths of life. He is sadly missed from our midst … He was followed to his grave by a vast concourse, almost the entire population who could, by any means attend.”

And yet that same issue of the paper, having said that the whole affair was a dark blot on the usually peaceable town, went on to say that it did not think that a court of law would convict the cowboys of murder.

Three days later the daily paper in Miles City reported that $2000 had been raised to defend the cowboys, and a prominent lawyer from Cheyenne, Wyoming engaged. It claimed that the whole thing had been a drunken row, in which the officers were as drunk as anyone. This drew a ferocious reponse from the Glendive paper, which described Miles City as ‘home of thugs, thieves, rounders, incendiary and vigilants’. (Miles City is some seventy miles south-west of Glendive. It developed as a trading post providing liquor and other services to army personnel stationed nearby after the Little Big Horn. In 1880 it had a population of 550 and 23 saloons – in 1881 there were 42. The Scott & Hanks Cattle Co ran its 20,000 cattle to the south of Miles City.)

The case eventually came to trial in April 1884. The charge against the three cowboys was not murder, but “drawing and exhibiting a deadly weapon in a rude, angry, and threatening manner, and not necessary self-defence”. No charges were brought against Conductor Brown. James Lynch, the cook and bartender, who had been held in jail since the previous October as a possible witness, was also discharged.

The case against David Coward was heard on April 7th. He was fined $100, and ordered to be held in jail until it had been paid. The case against Horace Resley was heard on April 8th. He appears to have been found not-guilty. Larry Wolverton was discharged without trial on April 9th.

On April 12th David Coward ‘moved to be released as a poor person upon his having been confined one day’. The records at this point are very fragile and impossible to read, but it looks as though some sort of deal was done. So, the cowboys do seem to have escaped justice, just as the newspaper had forecast.

We will probably never know the real reason behind the events of that evening. Was it just high spirits? or a deliberate attempt to cause trouble in Glendive? or a deliberate targeting of Clayton (which seems unlikely)? And what was the real role of Conductor Brown?

Sheriff Taylor was only sheriff for two years. There was later a Grand Jury investigation of the local government, specifically addressing the Sheriff’s department.

Robert Pontet of Pontet & Gallagher acted as administrator of Clayton’s estate. We have details of all the claims against it, which totalled $1,984. They included $243.48 from Pontet & Gallagher themselves, $37.48 in local taxes, $329.30 from the ranch foreman, and $18 for a revolver, which may have been that supplied to Clayton when he joined the posse. Clayton’s personal estate was valued at $1,926 and his real estate at $4,500. Pontet sold the two ranches to cover the claims and legal expenses. It would appear that the estimates of Clayton’s wealth when he settled in Glendive – one newspaper reported $200,000 (£40,000) – had been exaggerated. The principal asset noted in the will that he signed in London on 5th June was the house Newlyn. From the value of that he made legacies of £700 with the residue going to his brother Raymond. His personal estate in the UK was calculated at £3 18s and 4d.

And that seems to be the story of who Clayton Stanford Willicombe was, and what he was doing in Montana. Two items remain though. We have not been able to find a picture of Clayton, although we do have the coroner’s post-mortem description: fair complexion, blue eyes and light hair. And we have no explanation of those unusual Christian names. “

Whereas the Tunbridge Wells Civic Society has not been able to find a photograph of Clayton, one did for mysterious reasons turn up in germany, where I had the luck to obtain it. I managed to get into contact with the Vice president of the Royal Tunbridge Wells Civic Society, Mr. John A. Cunningham and Mr. Chris Jones, the above articles author, and I am happy to say that the photograph of Mr. Clayton S. Willicombe is now back home in Tunbridge Wells. 

Incredible what a story can hide behind a single, small photograph. I dedicate this post to Mr. Clayton Stanford Willicombe, may he rest in peace.

An unusual story and one which i wanted to share.

* used with kind permission (http://www.thecivicsociety.org/newsletter/05b-7-clayton.html) written by Mr. Chris Jones.

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